MotheroftheLamb_M.MillinerBkcover

The Seeger Center for Hellenic Studies supports more than a dozen fellows each year who conduct intensive research at Princeton. Former Seeger fellows have published hundreds of books with leading publishers and thousands of articles. Their scholarship reflects the broad, interdisciplinary nature of Hellenic Studies, spanning fields from history to religion to literature and periods from antiquity to the present.

In the latest edition of Director’s Bookshelf, Seeger Center Director Dimitri Gondicas speaks with Matthew J. Milliner about his new book, Mother of the Lamb: The Story of a Global Icon, published by Fortress Press in 2022. Milliner is a professor of Art History at Wheaton College and earned his doctorate from Princeton in 2011. 

This interview has been edited and condensed.

How did this book project begin?  

Technically, I suppose it began when the College of New Jersey (now Princeton University) President James McCosh (d. 1894) encouraged philosophy professor Allan Marquand to teach art history because of Marquand’s less-than-orthodox theological opinions. Marquand thereby became Princeton’s first art history professor and museum director, and he acquired a Cretan icon of Mary and Jesus (the Virgin of the Passion) for Princeton’s Art Museum in 1911. In the eyes of some, this acquisition elevated the Princeton Art Museum to the level of the Uffizi Gallery in Florence! A century later, as a graduate student, I gave a talk on icons at the Museum, and when asked about this particular icon, I didn’t have a very good answer. So it was that this book project began.            

Please tell us about your time at the Seeger Center and the research you conducted then.

Conveniently enough, my dissertation research began at a time when the great Patricia Fortini Brown was leading undergraduate courses to former Venetian colonies such as Crete and Corfu. Academically speaking, it was as if a kid in a candy store had struck oil while winning the lottery and hitting the jackpot. As a graduate student, I was able to join these courses, and I used these trips to hunt for the origins of the Virgin of the Passion icon type. My dissertation research culminated with a year of study in Cyprus thanks to another Hellenic Studies scholar, Nikolas Bakirtzis, at the Cyprus Institute. The first surviving instance of the Virgin of the Passion is on this island, where it was painted in 1192 as a response to the Third Crusade. When I saw a freshly painted Virgin of the Passion on a newly constructed church in Nicosia, painted partly in response to the island’s more recent invasion, I realized that my “Byzantine” topic was more a matter of current events, even American ones.

How did that research impact your work as a whole and this book project?

Russian theologian Pavel Florensky asked the following questions about the study of icons: “What would we say of an ornithologist who, instead of observing birds wherever possible in their natural habitat, concerned himself exclusively with collecting beautiful plumage?” The Seeger Center took my studies out of the museum and threw me into the native liturgical and architectural habitats of the icons I was studying. But it wasn’t just a matter of visiting beautiful churches. I also remember being buried in a stack of books and boxes at the Cyprus American Archaeological Research Institute and uncovering an article on this icon by Mirjana Tatić-Djurić that still doesn’t appear on our modern university search engines. I couldn’t have found it in any other way.

What would you like your readers to learn?

The humbling reality of these investigations is that the trails of Byzantine history are well trodden. My book was written as a response to the militarization of the Virgin Mary, arguing that there is a deeper Marian tradition that does not promote violence but responds to it with suffering love. But just as my book was being prepared for publication, the militarization of the Virgin Mary made headlines when the Patriarch of Moscow gave an icon of Mary to the director of Russia’s National Guard, reportedly to provide inspiration to National Guard forces waging war in Ukraine. Even so, I believe the Virgin of the Passion continues to offer a reply to such violence, just as the image did when it was created.

A transformative journey to Greece inspired Stanley J. Seeger to found Hellenic Studies programs at Princeton. Please tell us about a journey that expanded your intellectual horizons or influenced your research.

I’d like to contemplate what might not have been. Mr. Seeger could have kept those discoveries to himself. Instead, he allowed his transformation to result in a gift that could transform others, and I am one of them. Living with the nuns at Mount Menoikeion during a Seeger Center seminar left a permanent imprint on my life, personally and professionally. I also remember being in the lake city of Kastoria examining Byzantine frescoes, and there I saw a puzzling image of St. Menas where he looked like the Virgin Mary. It struck me as an image of a man giving birth to Christ in contemplative prayer, which has inspired me to pursue this practice as wellFinally, I think of how the trapezi at the Seeger Center exemplified the highest level of intimate and erudite academic discourse. I don’t have a Greek bone in my body, nor are my scholarly capacities even remotely illustrious, but still I always felt welcome. I think they call that philoxenia

 

Photo of Dimitri Gondicas by Sameer A. Khan/Fotobuddy. Photo of Matthew J. Milliner by Greg Halvorsen Schreck.
Visit Matthew's website at millinerd.com.


To read previous Director’s Bookshelf interviews, please visit our archive.

To learn more about books by members of the Princeton Seeger Center academic community, please visit our Publications page.